Two robotic Chinese spacecraft have docked in lunar orbit for the first time ever, in preparation for sending samples from the Moon to Earth.
The lunar ascent module for China’s Chang’e-5 mission was captured by the metal claws of the mission’s orbiter at 5:42 a.m. Beijing time December 6th (2142 UTC December 5th), the China National Space Administration reported.
Over the half-hour that followed, a canister containing lunar material was safely transferred to the orbiter’s attached Earth-return capsule. In the days ahead, the ascent module will be jettisoned, and the orbiter will fire its thrusters to carry the return capsule back toward Earth.
If all proceeds according to plan, the orbiter will drop off the return capsule for its descent to Inner Mongolia sometime around December 16th, with the exact timing dependent on the mission team’s analysis of the required trajectory. That would mark the first return of fresh material from the Moon since the Soviet Luna 24 spacecraft accomplished the feat back in 1976.
For the first time in more than 40 years, a robotic spacecraft has blasted off from the Moon – and for the first time ever, it’s a Chinese spacecraft, carrying precious lunar samples back to Earth.
The ascent vehicle for the Chang’e-5 mission fired its engine and rose a region called Oceanus Procellarum at 1510 UTC (11:10 p.m. Beijing time) on December 3rd, the China National Space Administration’s China Lunar Exploration Project reported.
Imagery sent back from the Moon provided a view of the blastoff from ground zero. It was the first successful lunar launch since the Soviet Luna 24 probe took off during a sample return mission in 1976.
China’s Chang’e-5 robotic moon lander is due to spend only two days collecting samples of lunar rock and soil before it sends its shipment on its way back to Earth, but it’s making the most of the time.
Just hours after landing on December 1st, the probe started using its robotic scoop and drill to dig up material at Mons Rümker, a lava dome in a region called Oceanus Procellarum, or the Ocean of Storms.
It’s also been sending back pictures and video, including this stunning view of the final minutes before touchdown. Watch how the camera tips straight down to focus on the target spot for the lander:
For the third time in seven years, a Chinese robotic spacecraft has landed on the Moon — but now things will get really interesting: If the Chang’e-5 mission succeeds, the probe will deliver fresh samples from the Moon to Earth for the first time in 44 years.
Chang’e-5’s paired lander and ascent vehicle touched down in a lunar region known as Oceanus Procellarium, near Mons Rümker, at 1513 UTC (11:13 p.m. Beijing time) December 1st. The landing came eight days after the 9-ton spacecraft was launched from Wenchang Space Launch Center, and three days after the craft settled into lunar orbit.
In the near future, launch facilities located at sea are expected to be a lot more common. SpaceX announced that it is hoping to create offshore facilities in the near future for the sake of launching the Starship away from populated areas. And China, the latest member of the superpowers-in-space club, is currently building the “Eastern Aerospace Port” off the coast of Haiyang city in the eastern province of Shandong.
This mobile launch facility is being developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the country’s largest aerospace and defense contractor. Once fully operational, it will be used to launch light vehicles, as well as for building and maintaining rockets, satellites, and related space applications. As China’s fifth launch facility, it will give the country’s space program a new degree of flexibility.
China greeted the New Year with some impressive lunar milestones. For starters, last Friday (Jan. 3rd) was the first anniversary of the Chang’e-4 mission becoming the first robotic mission to make a landing on the far side of the Moon. A day prior, the Yutu-2 rover also celebrated the end of its 13th lunar day of science operations and the fact that it was the first rover to travel a record 357.695 meters (1,173.5 ft) on the far side of the Moon.
The year two thousand and twenty is almost upon us. And as always, space agencies and aerospace companies all around the world are preparing to spend the coming year accomplishing a long list of missions and developments. Between NASA, the ESA, China, SpaceX, and others, there are enough plans to impress even the most curmudgeonly of space enthusiasts.
It’s official, for the first time ever, scientists have found a living organism on the Moon! Well, not so much found, we put it there. But the implications are immense nonetheless! According to photos and a statement released by the China National Space Administration this week (Mon. Jan. 14th), the Chang’e-4 mission’s Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME) experiment has produced its first sprouted plant.
Since the turn of the century, China has worked hard to become one of the fastest-rising powers in space. In 2003, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) began sending their first taikonauts to space with the Shenzou program. This was followed by the deployment of the Tiangong-1 space station in 2011 and the launch of Tiangong-2 in 2016. And in the coming years, China also has its sights set on the Moon.
But before China can conduct crewed lunar missions, they must first explore the surface to locate safe landing spots and resources. This is the purpose behind the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (aka. the Chang’e program). Named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, this program made history yesterday (Thursday, Jan. 3rd) when the fourth vehicle to bear the name (Chang’e-4) landed on the far side of the Moon.
It would be no exaggeration to say that we live in an age of renewed space exploration. In particular, the Moon has become the focal point of increasing attention in recent years. In addition to President Trump’s recent directive to NASA to return to the Moon, many other space agencies and private aerospace companies are planning their own missions to the lunar surface.
A good example is the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), otherwise known as the Chang’e Program. Named in honor of the ancient Chinese lunar goddess, this program has sent two orbiters and one lander to the Moon already. And later this year, the Chang’e 4 mission will begin departing for the far side of the Moon, where it will study the local geology and test the effects of lunar gravity on insects and plants.
The mission will consist of a relay orbiter being launched aboard a Long March 5 rocket in June of 2018. This relay will assume orbit around the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange Point, followed by the launch of the lander and rover about six months later. In addition to an advanced suite of instruments for studying the lunar surface, the lander will also be carrying an aluminum alloy container filled with seeds and insects.
As Zhang Yuanxun – chief designer of the container – told the Chongqing Morning Post (according to China Daily):
“The container will send potatoes, arabidopsis seeds and silkworm eggs to the surface of the Moon. The eggs will hatch into silkworms, which can produce carbon dioxide, while the potatoes and seeds emit oxygen through photosynthesis. Together, they can establish a simple ecosystem on the Moon.”
The mission will also be the first time that a mission is sent to an unexplored region on the far side of the Moon. This region is none other than the South Pole-Aitken Basin, a vast impact region in the southern hemisphere. Measuring roughly 2,500 km (1,600 mi) in diameter and 13 kilometers (8.1 mi) deep, it is the single-largest impact basin on the Moon and one of the largest in the Solar System.
This basin is also source of great interest to scientists, and not just because of its size. In recent years, it has been discovered that the region also contains vast amounts of water ice. These are thought to be the results of impacts by meteors and asteroids which left water ice that survived because of how the region is permanently shadowed. Without direct sunlight, water ice in these craters has not been subject to sublimation and chemical dissociation.
Since the 1960s, several missions have explored this region from orbit, including the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and India’s Chandrayaan-1 orbiter. This last mission (which was mounted in 2008) also involved sending the Moon Impact Probe to the surface to trigger the release of material, which was then analyzed by the orbiter.
The mission confirmed the presence of water ice in the Aitken Crater, a discovery which was confirmed about a year later by NASA’s LRO. Thanks to this discovery, there have been several in the space exploration community who have stated that the South Pole-Aitken Basin would be the ideal location for a lunar base. In this respect, the Chang’e 4 mission is investigating the very possibility of humans living and working on the Moon.
Aside from telling us more about the local terrain, it will also assess whether or not terrestrial organisms can grow and thrive in lunar gravity – which is about 16% that of Earths (or 0.1654 g). Previous studies conducted aboard the ISS have shown that long-term exposure to microgravity can have considerable health effects, but little is known about the long-term effects of lower gravity.
The European Space Agency has also been vocal about the possibility of building an International Lunar Village in the southern polar region by the 2030s. Intrinsic to this is the proposed Lunar Polar Sample Return mission, a joint effort between the ESA and Roscosmos that will involve sending a robotic probe to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin by 2020 to retrieve samples of ice.
In the past, NASA has also discussed ideas for building a lunar base in the southern polar region. Back in 2014, NASA scientists met with Harvard geneticist George Church, Peter Diamandis (creator of the X Prize Foundation) and other parties to discuss low-cost options. According to the papers that resulted from the meeting, this base would exist at one of the poles and would be modeled on the U.S. Antarctic Station at the South Pole.
If all goes well for the Chang’e 4 mission, China intends to follow it up with more robotic missions, and an attempted crewed mission in about 15 years. There has also been talk about including a radio telescope as part of the mission. This RF instrument would be deployed to the far side of the Moon where it would be undistributed by radio signals coming from Earth (which is a common headache when it comes to radio astronomy).
And depending on what the mission can tell us about the South Pole-Aitken Basin (i.e. whether the water ice is plentiful and the radiation tolerable), it is possible that space agencies will be sending more missions there in the coming years. Some of them might even be carrying robots and building materials!